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North Korea Rejecting Diplomacy; Republicans Attempt to Show United Front; North Korea Rejects Diplomacy with U.S. for Now; Whistleblower Exposes Role of Congress & Drug Industry. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Steve Bannon says he is looking for a Brutus to take on McConnell's Julius Caesar, someone who presumably has not read to the end of the play.

THE LEAD starts right now.

All smiles. President Trump presents a united front with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, as his former right-hand man, Steve Bannon, declares war on the establishment that McConnell represents. President Trump not only doesn't criticize Bannon. He says he understands where he's coming from.

No talk. North Korea rejecting diplomacy with the United States for now, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tells me that the U.S. is ready to talk -- quote -- "until the first bomb drops."

Plus, an explosive new report accusing Congress of disarming the DEA and helping to fuel the opioid epidemic in the country. Did the president's nominee for drug czar help push through that law?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The Republican Party has never been more unified, President Trump said today, except for a few hours earlier maybe, when the president was blaming Senate Republicans for -- quote -- "not getting the job done" legislatively, and he was backing former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who declared a -- quote -- "bloody civil war" against Republican members of Congress up for reelection next year.

Bannon blamed them for stalling the president's agenda and President Trump said today -- quote -- "I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels," which is a funny way to express unity and support for congressional Republicans.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny starts us off today from Greenville, South Carolina, where President Trump will be this evening to fund-raise for the incumbent Republican governor.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My relationship with this gentleman is outstanding. Has been outstanding.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump breaking the ice today with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's too soon to know if they have buried the hatchet.

TRUMP: We're fighting for the same thing. We're fighting for lower taxes, big tax cuts, the biggest tax cuts in the history of our nation. We're fighting for tax reform as part of that.

ZELENY: With their vastly different styles on full display, the two men stood side by side in the Rose Garden trying to make nice and hoping to smooth over the insults and infighting flying between them for weeks.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Contrary to what some of you may have reported, we are together totally on this agenda.

ZELENY: The Republican tax cut plan is a critical test for whether the White House and Congress can actually govern. It's an incentive for Trump and McConnell to come together, despite a civil war raging inside the GOP.

The president's embrace of McConnell stood in contrast to weeks of blaming and shaming him for failing to repeal Obamacare.

TRUMP: We should have had health care approved. He should have known that he had a couple of votes that turned on him.

ZELENY: And, today, McConnell did not question Mr. Trump's grasp of the presidency, as he did this summer.

MCCONNELL: Our new president has, of course, not been in this line of work before, and I think had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.

ZELENY: After a private lunch today, the president took questions for nearly 45 minutes, as McConnell watched and occasionally joined in. It was an unusual sign of unity, considering Trump loyalists like Steve Bannon had declared war on McConnell and the Republican establishment.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: Yes, Mitch, the donors, the donors are not happy. They have all left you. We have cut your oxygen off, Mitch, OK?

ZELENY: But the show of solidarity at the White House today sent a clear signal the president is far less interested in tearing down the Republican Party than Bannon, his former chief strategist, is.

TRUMP: Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk them out of that, because, frankly, they're great people.

ZELENY: McConnell did not mention Bannon by name, but he warned against to mount primary challenges against Republican senators. MCCONNELL: You have to nominate people who can actually win, because

winners make policy and losers go home.

ZELENY: The president's showed little interview in bringing his impromptu, freewheeling news conference to an end, taking questions on one topic after another. And he even look ahead to his next election, raising an improbable scenario.

TRUMP: I hope Hillary runs. Is she going to run? I hope. Hillary, please run again.


ZELENY: Jake, of course, Hillary Clinton has said she will not run for president again, but President Trump is flying down to South Carolina to campaign for someone here who helped him out in his own presidential campaign. That's the governor of South Carolina, Jake, but the president's not doing any public events at all.

He's not selling or pushing his tax cut plan. And it is the future of that plan which will help indicate the future of the Republican majority in Congress and, in fact, his legislative agenda, all of which seemed overwhelmed a bit by that spectacle at the White House.


TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

I want to bring in my political panel now, CNN political Scott Jennings. He's a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. Senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN political commentator Van Jones, who is the author of a brand-new book called "The Messy Truth."

So let's dive right into it.

This morning, the president says he understands why Steve Bannon declared war on the Republican establishment.

Scott, McConnell's pushback, we need people who can win elections. In 2010, I think it was, we nominated a whole bunch of Tea Partiers, for want of a better term, and they lost all of their elections. We need people who can win.

That's his agenda. And obviously Steve Bannon has a completely opposite point of view.

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, the president is correct, I think, to channel and feel the frustrations of Republicans who want to see things happen. That's not an incorrect emotional impulse.

In fact, that's what's makes his political instincts so good, is being able to channel those kinds of feelings. However, I think, at times, his anger has been aimed at the wrong people. In fact, the people that Bannon is recruiting against have a combined Trump voting score, according to the FiveThirtyEight Web site, of 94 percent.

And so what good is it to go to the Senate and vote for all of Trump's stuff if you're going to get a primary out there? I was pleased to see the president say he was going to talk to Bannon about not recruiting primaries against the people who are actually on the Trump team.

TAPPER: Although I have to say, Van, he didn't criticize Bannon at all. He just said he was going to talk to him. Maybe we can try to talk him out of him. It was all very positive. And this is a president who has been known to throw a punch or two.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, one of the things that's very interesting is his whole brand is how authentic he is or whatever.

He gets up there, transparently lies about how much he loves McConnell and how much they get along, and then, meanwhile, his best buddy is like sharpening the knives and getting ready to take the guy out. I think it's -- maybe not as authentic today as he might pretend to be.

TAPPER: Nia-Malika, how serious a threat is this Bannon campaign? Bannon is talking about serious challenges to a whole bunch of, frankly, as Scott points out, very conservative Republicans. They happen to be establishment Republicans, but they are very conservative, Barrasso.


TAPPER: Wicker.

These are not these are not moderates. These are very conservative senators.

HENDERSON: Yes, I mean, it's serious because it's Bannon, because Bannon has a platform at Breitbart. He also has money, right? He's got this family who is backing this effort.

And his notion is that 2010 and 2014 were different, and that now sort of this will be a perfect storm, because I think he also understands that voters seem to think that he is with Trump, right, and that he is fighting for Trump's agenda, that he is ultimately sort of the outsider, Bannon is. And Trump is as well.

So, I mean, with that kind of organizations, perhaps it's something you have to take more seriously. I mean, think the issue comes with what kind of candidates they're going to be able to recruit and will they be candidates that are able to be vetted, and can really withstand not only a primary, make it through the primary, but then to a general election?

That's something that's hard to do.

JONES: The deeper problem here is just the poison from a Bannon. You begin to put out there the idea that even if you support Trump, you still have to move further right. That's not how you're going to get your constituency any real help.

You still are going to have Democrats there. At some point, you have got to have people who can work together. You have Bannon now who is going to make people terrified to actually make the government function, and that's -- win or lose, we all lose on that.

TAPPER: Scott, at some point, the president's going to have to choose between Steve Bannon and Mitch McConnell. These primary fights are going to be very difficult. You can't straddle them. At some point, Bannon's candidates are going to be challenging McConnell's guys like Wicker.

JENNINGS: Yes, and it would be I think catastrophic for the president to choose against people who are voting with him on almost every single vote.

That would send a terrible signal for future legislative exchanges. So I'm hopeful that the president has a continued dialogue with Senator McConnell about what it means to understand that politics is a team sport.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got lots more to talk about after the break, including the president's thoughts on who he would like to see run against him in 2020.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Sticking with the politics lead.

We're sticking with my panel, CNN political commentator Scott Jennings, former special assistant to President George W. Bush, senior police reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, and CNN political commentator Van Jones, who is the author of a brand-new book, "Beyond the Messy Truth," available on Amazon today.

President Trump today weighing in on Hillary Clinton and more. Take a listen.


TRUMP: Well, I hope Hillary runs. Is she going to run? I hope. Hillary, please run again.

When you take a knee -- that's why she lost the election. I mean, honestly, it's that thinking that is the reason she lost the election.


TAPPER: Interestingly, Nia-Malika.

And I said, what does that mean? And you said? Explain.

HENDERSON: Yes. No, I said he's essentially saying she was on the wrong side of the culture war. And it's something that you have even heard Bannon talk about, this idea if you get Democrats talking about race and racism, that Republicans have an answer for that.

And Donald Trump does have an answer for that. He very much revels in the culture wars. It's something I think that unifies his base, which is largely white, which really straddles all economic classes, as well as largely evangelical Christian as well.

So he knows he's on firm ground. I thought that was an apt diagnosis in many ways of one of the reasons at least that contributed to Hillary Clinton's loss.

TAPPER: It's one of the things we have heard when people -- when Democrats criticize Hillary Clinton's campaign is that there was too much about bathrooms and not enough about jobs.

JONES: It's true.

I mean, I think, at the end of the day, she's not president, and he is. We have now had two presidents in a row that didn't like Kaepernick's protests.

But look at the way Obama handled it. Obama said: You know what, there's probably better ways to do it. I want Kaepernick to listen to the people who he may be offending, and I want those people to listen to him.

TAPPER: Right.


JONES: He used it as a moment to try to get some understanding and dialogue going and not to actually, you know, throw more gasoline on the fire. And that's part of the problem we have. It's why I wrote the book I wrote.

I went around the country. It seems like there is a lot of common pain out there but no common purpose. And increasingly people are -- politicians are using the division in the country for their end but not for the country's gains.

TAPPER: What do you think, Scott?

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I think Donald Trump is right. I think after eight years of Obama, a lot of people, particularly in the middle of the country, felt we had been dragged very far to the left, almost to make the country unrecognizable in their view and they were reacting to that. And Hillary Clinton largely adopted the Obama view. And I think that's why she lost the election in the states that she did.

You know, for Donald Trump on the NFL issue, he doesn't care what people in the urban centers think, he just cares about making sure people in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are still with him emotionally.

JONES: But isn't that awful? That he doesn't care -- because here's the deal, the conservative movement doesn't rationally have to go around antagonizing urban folks. Conservatives could say, hey, you know, you guys are complaining about lack of opportunity, lack of justice, we're conservatives. We care about that and we can help you. I don't like your symbols, but the sums of your complaint, I care about that. I'm not going to call you out, I'm going to call you in and talk to you.

They're not doing that. Doesn't that long term hurt the country?

JENNINGS: I think there are some Republicans that have heard what you've had to say about criminal justice reform and have acted on it. I think in the case of the president, I think in the case of any first-term president, they're looking at the connectivity they have to have with the people to win re-election. Look, it's 80,000 votes in the middle of the country that made Donald Trump the president. If he loses those people, he's a one-term president.

JONES: Let me tell you what, he can keep all of those people and show that he cares about folks in urban America. And here's the problem -- we've now gotten to a point where it's a 12-month, four-year campaign and we never get around to governing for all the people. And that's what's wrong.

And I don't think that the Republican Party -- yes, you can win with this stuff for a little while, but long term, we can't just fight about everything and still have a country and haven't yet -- he's not done one thing yet to reach out to the people that those guys are out there taking a knee for. That's wrong.

TAPPER: Every now and then, we hear something like, for instance, when President Trump was talking about working with Pelosi and Schumer on the DREAMers, although that seems to be kind of off the table now. But every now and then, there does seem to be I think, oh, maybe he does realize that he needs to do better than 45 percent. And he could actually win re-election easily if he tried to expand his base instead of only focus on his base. But then he -- it doesn't happen very often.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, it doesn't -- it's sort of he changes his mind. I mean, it seems to be of the moment, the DACA thing, where he seemed to suggest that they had reached some sort of a deal. Chuck and Nancy came out and said as much. Then he, again, had to talk about the wall and make that a part of whatever deal there is. And that is him obviously trying to deliver on what his base wants.

TAPPER: All right. Van Jones, Scott Jennings, Nia-Malika Henderson, thanks one and all.

Van Jones, congratulations on the book.

JONES: Thank you. TAPPER: A shocking condition from the North Korea. The regime says

it will not consider diplomacy until it has a missile that can reach the east coast of the United States. That story is next.


[16:22:28] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The world lead now. Kim Jong-un will not talk. Today, North Korea said diplomacy with the United States is off the table for now because the rogue regime is committed to developing a missile capable of, quote, reaching all the way to the east coast of the mainland United States.

This response came just hours after Secretary of State Tillerson told me that the president does not think diplomacy with North Korea is a waste of time, as he once tweeted.

CNN's Will Ripley, who has been to North Korea more than a dozen times, joins me now.

Will, what does this flat-out rejection of diplomacy mean?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It means that North Korea, according to the official I spoke with, wants to send a clear message to the Trump administration that they have an effective nuclear deterrence. So, they want to prove they have an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile, that can hit the mainland U.S., which means they would have to launch that kind of a missile to demonstrate its capacity.

And this official also says they would need to prove this is a weapon that they could actually -- that would actually be viable, which would mean an above-ground detonation. A detonation over the Pacific perhaps, like North Korea's foreign minister threatened after president Trump said at the United Nations that the U.S. is ready to totally destroy North Korea if necessary.

So, basically, North Korea saying no thanks to the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, even though he told you, Jake, that the U.S. would pursue diplomacy until the first bomb drops. The question now is North Korea going to do something that would provoke the U.S. to take an action like that?

TAPPER: How is North Korea responding to these joint U.S./South Korean naval drills that are happening over the next 10 days in the region?

RIPLEY: We haven't seen any response yet, but past experience shows that North Korea is always infuriated and threatened and paranoid as a result of these military exercises, which the U.S. insists are purely defensive in nature. But when you have 40 naval ships, a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Ronald Reagan, fighter jets and helicopters off the waters of the Korean peninsula, it would be very likely to see some sort of a military response from the North Korea. In fact, the official I spoke with said this may be a final for the North to launch a missile or to test a nuclear device as they have around previous joint drills in the past.

TAPPER: All right. Will Ripley, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

After an explosive new report about what might have helped fuel the opioid crisis, there are calls for President Trump to withdraw his nominee for drug czar. We'll have that story next.


[16:28:53] TAPPER: We're back with our health lead now.

President Trump today acknowledged some serious questions about his own nominee to be White House drug czar after an explosive report charging that nominee, Republican Congressman Tom Marino who was sponsoring legislation pushed by drug companies that hobble the ability for the Drug Enforcement Agency to protect the American people.

A former DEA deputy administrator, Joe Rannazzisi, served as a whistle-blower for the report by the "Washington Post" and CBS News, revealing this pharmaceutical industry-friendly law that the DEA had opposed for years was passed, fueling the opioid crisis. The whistle- blower says multibillion dollar drug companies courted a handful of members of Congress, showering them with cash to get this done.


JOE RANNAZZISI, FORMER HEAD OF DIVERSION CONTROL, DEA: This is an industry that allowed millions and millions of drugs to go into bad pharmacies and doctors' offices that distributed them out to people who had no legitimate need for those drugs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know the implication of what you're saying, that these big companies knew that they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people?

RANNAZZISI: That's not an implication. That's a fact.